May 26, 2005

Does Compassion Require Theocracy?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:33 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot about separation of church and state lately. Among the Christian right, pluralism, tolerance and diversity are bad words, but for the rest of us they are to be embraced. But why? Isn’t this abandoning our religious convictions?

I read an essay a few years back by David Vessey in a book called The Simpsons and Philosophy: the D’oh of Homer. The essay revisited the Simpsons episode where Bart, Lisa and Maggie become foster children of Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ next-door neighbor and an evangelical Christian. Ned discovers that the Simpson kids haven’t been baptized, so as a good Christian, he sets out to baptize them with or without Homer’s and Marge’s permission.

The essay asks whether Ned, a Christian, instructed to love his neighbor as himself, is “morally required to baptize everyone out of love, for the sake of saving their eternal life”, even if it requires the use of force or fraud. The essay goes on to answer the question via Kant, which was much less interesting to me than the question itself.

I believe the answer is clearly “no”. But if a Christian believes that only baptized Christians are saved from eternal damnation, it’s not so easy. If this is true, then it could be perceived that compassion requires a Christian to act to save someone from an eternity in hell, Kant notwithstanding. Prayer in schools, Christian symbols in public spaces and turning the US into a “Christian nation” are ways to show our Christian love to unbelievers by saving their souls. Dominionism becomes a Christian obligation.

Think of another situation – depression leading someone to contemplate suicide. Of course you would try to prevent them from acting on their suicidal impulse, even if it took physical force. You would get them treatment, even if it required their involuntary confinement to protect them from themselves. Would you save someone’s physical life, only to allow them to throw away their eternal life? For a conservative Christian, this reasoning would lead you to believe that embracing diversity is tantamount to throwing everyone’s souls into the hellfire.

The problem is with the belief that the unbaptized will all be condemned. This turns God’s grace into law. Jesus provides a way to become reconciled with God where before there was none — this is God’s grace. If we flip this around to say that those that haven’t been baptized, or “made a decision for Christ”, or been “born again”, or received the gift of tongues are condemned, we have turned this into a new law, a new works righteousness. It’s grasping defeat from the jaws of victory.

Jesus said that no one reaches the father but through him, that he is the truth, the way and the life. So let’s leave Jesus in charge of who’s in and who’s out, and follow his example by being a servant to others. Part of this is by making disciples of all nations, but we are to do this by proclaiming the good news (aka God’s grace), not by negating the good news by turning it into law.

This is why freedom, both political and religious, is an important part of God’s plan. God has given us free will; who are we to take it away?

Discouraging Signs the Country Has Lost Its Mind

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 1:50 am

A few weeks ago I sat in my room back at the hospital, having taken my meds from the very helpful nurse, with smooth jazz playing in the background, and smiled while my hospital roommate told me that he was actually an alien from another universe. Then I wrote a post titled “Encouraging Signs the Country Has Not Lost Its Mind“.

Today, however, my insurance has run out, the hospital has booted me, I can’t afford to fill the prescriptions the hospital gave me, and my alien/hospital-roommate is trying to kill me to keep me from telling Dick Cheney that his home planet is oozing with oil.

So I’ve titled this post accordingly.

  • Scott McLellan said today when asked about stem-cell research that “… the President believes we should value life at every stage…The President’s policy is that we should not be using public dollars for the destruction of life”…

    …while “American troops killed at least 10 suspected militants in Haditha” today

    …and Gregory Scott Johnson was told his execution wouldn’t be delayed to allow him to donate part of his liver to his sister…

    …and the number of children with health insurance in the US grows

  • Federal money is used to fund Christian anti-condom abstinence-only sex education…

    …resulting in the continued spread of STDs, including AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies that may end in an abortion

  • The United States Naval Academy is now known for three things: tolerance of student-on-student rape, intolerance of non-Christians…

    …and its close proximity to a Christian organization called “Focus on the Family”

  • Many Christians believe, as chronicled by the Left Behind books, that we are entering the end-times when a political leader will co-opt religion (or is it the other way around?) to obtain unchallenged political control, bringing about Armageddon…

    …while President Bush co-opts Christianity (or is it the other way around?) in his attempt to obtain unchallenged political control, bringing about a permanent conservative majority

Fortunately, I must be delusional, because if I’m not, then the rest of the country is crazy.

May 25, 2005

The Parable of the One Blogger Who Tracked Back

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 11:19 pm

Some more humor at TallSkinnyKiwi, via Ichthus:

What Preachers Say
This is the Parable of the One Who Returned
Luke 17:11-18 And it came to pass, as they were on their way to Jerusalem, that he was passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered into a certain village, there met him ten men that were lepers, who stood afar off: and they lifted up their voices, saying, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go and show yourselves unto the priests. And it came to pass, as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, with a loud voice glorifying God; and he fell upon his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, Were not the ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there none found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger? And he said unto him, Arise, and go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.

What Bloggers Hear
this is the parable of the one blogger who tracked back
Luke 17:11-18 And it came to pass, as they were reloading the Jerusalem home page, that in his RSS reader he noticed the suspicious URLs of and And as he opened a certain website, there met him ten bloggers with viruses in their hard drive and they messaged him, saying, Jesus, Master, have mercy on us. And when he saw them, he said unto them, Go and show your template html unto the Programmers. And it came to pass, as they went, their viruses were erased. And one of them, when he saw that his html was restored, pinged back, with a bold trackback glorifying God; and he uploaded a huge blog post of appreciation: and he was not logged in as a member. And Jesus answering said, Did not the ten bloggers get cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there none found that pinged a trackback to God, except this non-cookied non-logged non-member? And he said unto him, Boot up, load up and blog on: your faith has made your code whole.

Borowitz: Group Seeks Ban of Twentieth Century

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:31 am

From Andy Borowitz:


Last Century ‘Just a Theory,’ Activists Say

A political action group in the state of Kansas is applying pressure on the Kansas State Board of Education to ban any and all references to the twentieth century from school textbooks, a spokesman for the group confirmed today.

The move to ban the twentieth century came up in a series of contentious school board hearings this week as the group loudly complained that the state’s current textbooks are rife with references to the controversial century, which they say may or may not have happened.

“These textbooks state unequivocally that the twentieth century occurred, as if that were a proven historic fact,” said Gordon Lavalier, the group’s leader and spokesman. “The simple truth is, the twentieth century is and has always been nothing but a theory.”

If the group gets its way, starting in the fall of 2005 Kansas students would be taught from newly reconstituted history books that end in the year 1899

Aren’t these history books already being used by some home schoolers?

May 24, 2005

New Christian Blog

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:44 am

I haven’t taken to trumpeting other blogs, mainly because there are so many great blogs popping up all the time that it’s hard to keep up. But I ran across a blog that I find very well-written and refreshingly personal: Disambiguation. Check it out.

The Naivete of the Christian Right

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:24 am

I have been accused of being naive, a charge to which I freely admit my guilt. But my naivete is by choice, not ignorance; while I am reality-based, I decide to take the naive view on this blog that politics and religion in the US can dramatically change for the better. Not so the Christian right. Their naivete reflects a blind faith in their own political power.

Now that the center has reasserted itself in the Senate, here are some leaders of the Christian right, as quoted in the LA Times:

“Unfortunately, 14 senators are allowed to speak for all of America, and they’re able to pick and choose the nominees they find acceptable,” said Lanier Swann, director of government relations for Concerned Women for America. She predicted that senators would face political fallout from both sides of the issue.

Of the seven Republicans who signed the compromise agreement, [Rev. Louis P.] Sheldon [chairman and founder of the Traditional Values Coalition] said: “They didn’t have the backbone and the fortitude to stand up for the fact that we are the majority.”

James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, which had been lobbying GOP senators to hold firm, expressed his “disappointment, outrage and sense of abandonment.”

Come election day, he said, “voters will remember both Democrats and Republicans who betrayed their trust.”

The naivete of these Christian right leaders is rather comical. They seem to think they have the power to dictate their will to the Senate. What they haven’t noticed is that the majority of Americans oppose abolishing the judicial filibuster. With such a highly visible issue, and with voters strongly against the conservatives, the Christian right’s mailing lists and fund-raising engine can’t compete with the electorate. The centrist Republicans understand that they will gain support in their districts by standing up against the nuclear option.

The Christian right hasn’t made their case to the American people. Intoxicated with their perceived proximity to power, they don’t bother trying to persuade the average American that their stands are in our interest. Instead, they presume they can call the shots regardless of what we think. This is naive.

This is what happens when religious leaders become political hacks. The target of political advocacy should always be the electorate, and not just a thin slice of activists, but the majority of Americans that decide which way the wind blows. Then the politicians with their fingers in the air will decide it is in their interest to support the majority. Perhaps not at first and not always, as political favors and campaign donations are traded. But power based on political capital from the last election will evaporate. Power based on truth, and public opinion, won’t.

May 23, 2005

The Christian Alliance for Progress

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:43 pm

I’m away from blogging for a few days (okay, a week) and look what happens…a new organization has been formed to take up the cause that has motivated this blog from its beginning. The Christian Alliance for Progress is a “movement to reclaim Christianity and transform American politics”. From its website:

The Christian Alliance advances a renewed, progressive vision of Gospel values and seeks to help Americans express this moral vision in our lives and in our politics.

They have developed a flash video that is definitely worth a look.

Faithful Progressive and Public Theologian are supporting the Christian Alliance as in-house bloggers, lending it the substantial credibility they have developed as progressive Christian bloggers. The site also provides opportunities for visitors to submit their personal stories and to sign the Jacksonville Declaration:

To The Political and Church Leaders of the Religious Right:

…We must tell you now that you do not speak for us, or for our politics. We say “No” to the ways you are using the name and language of Christianity to advance what we see as extremist political goals. We do not support your agenda to erode the separation of church and state, to blur the vital distinction between your interpretation of Christianity and our shared democratic institutions. Moreover, we do not accept what seems to be your understanding of Christian values. We reject a Christianity co-opted by any government and used as a tool to ostracize, to subjugate, or to condone bigotry, greed and injustice.

If your politics flow from your faith, then we do not know the Jesus you claim to follow.

Take a look at their website, and sign the Jacksonville Declaration.

May 19, 2005

What Drives the Conservative Christian Movement?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:05 pm

My bricks and mortar life has been interfering with my digital life lately, so blogging (as well as participating in the Spiritual Progressives Conference) has suffered. But, with a few minutes free, I find much to comment on regarding Michelle Cottle’s latest piece in The New Republic, in which she expands on some themes from her last article on progressive Christians. I’ll save some of my disagreements with her for a future post, but I at least want to comment on her depiction of the motivations driving the Christian right.

Cottle provides an incredibly cynical view of conservative evangelicals made all the more credible because of her quotes from insiders on the Christian right. First, she says that gay rights and abortion are the right’s hot button issues because they deal with sex.

In modern U.S. politics, however, personal piety has proved the more compelling rallying cry for a variety of reasons–perhaps the most basic being that sex sells. “Sex always gets people’s attention,” says Marvin Olasky, godfather of compassionate conservatism and editor of the religious magazine World. Talk of sexual sin “goes to the gut,” agrees conservative columnist Cal Thomas (who, in his younger days, served as vice president of communications for the Moral Majority). “It goes to the emotions, to feelings. It produces a visceral reaction.” By contrast, issues like health care and homelessness, while arguably more pertinent to more people’s lives, lack the same sizzle and, as such, are unlikely to capture the imagination of the grassroots, not to mention a drama-loving press.

Secondly, these issues allow conservatives to criticize others instead of looking within.

As a bonus, says Thomas, opposing abortion and gay marriage generally has more to do with changing someone else’s behavior than one’s own. He points out that, as far as the decline of American culture goes, Christians are just as guilty as non-Christians when it comes to high divorce rates, out-of-wedlock sex, and rampant materialism. (Supporting data for this and similar trends can be found in Sider’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.) But addressing this embarrassing reality would involve too much self-scrutiny, says Thomas. “People would much rather watch a video of someone else exercising than go to the gym and do the sweating themselves,” he quips.

Third, these issues point to an evil enemy, which stirs the passions of hatred.

Similarly, issues like poverty and racial reconciliation don’t lend themselves as neatly to the same good-versus-evil, us-versus-them political paradigm as gay rights or judicial activism, the right’s latest bugaboo. Sociologist Tony Campolo (who recently conducted his own spiritual sit-down with Democratic lawmakers) likes to quote from philosopher Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book, True Believer: “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil.” Hitler had the Jews, and the communists had the capitalists, says Campolo. “I contend that it’s easy to rally people around opposition to gay people. In the minds of many, they have become the devil that must be destroyed if America is to be saved.”

Next, the “enemy” is important to keep the cash coming in.

The uncomplicated, emotionally driven nature of the right’s message gives it a fund-raising edge over the non-right. “Big-time TV evangelists tell people, ‘Send us your money so we can stop abortion, stop gay rights,'” snorts Thomas. “If they were to go on and talk about how Christians needed to fix what’s wrong in their own house, they wouldn’t raise a dime.”

Lastly, these issues don’t conflict with the rest of the GOP.

Moreover, if evangelicals seriously began pushing for tougher environmental regulation or higher Social Security taxes, it would strain the base’s comfy relationship with the wing of the GOP that cares less about social than economic policy but that has, over the years, proved amenable to helping finance the crusade for personal piety. While many big-money Republicans may not share the right’s passion for banning abortion, such a cause doesn’t directly conflict with the party’s laissez-faire, pro-corporate economic stance. Notably, neither do the foreign policy achievements cited by the NAE, such as legislation involving religious freedom or child sextrafficking. Mucking around with domestic economic policy, however, such as calling for an increase in the minimum wage or for new pollution-control standards, could provoke intraparty rifts and put Republican politicians in a jam–yet another reason for the right to fight to maintain the status quo.

So there you have it. The Christian right clings to abortion and gay rights as their “Christian agenda” because of:

  1. Sex
  2. Condemnation and Hypocrisy
  3. Hate
  4. Money
  5. Political power

So, do these look like fruits of the spirit, or fruits of the flesh? Of course, these are sources of sins for all of us, for me as much as any conservative Christian layperson. What I find contemptible, though, are the leaders of the Christian right that prey on these very human weaknesses to further their agenda. Cal Thomas seems to be bragging about it (although it’s tough to tell the context of his remarks — is he confessing and asking for forgiveness?) I believe that many leaders of the Christian right are aware of these base motivating factors for their agendas, but rationalize them away, since they are “doing God’s work”.

Except that any work that relies on these means to accomplish their end can not be of God. Any Christian movement that must appeal to the worst in humanity instead of the best can’t be truly Christian.

Cottle argues that, because of these five levers, progressive Christians can never unseat the Christian right as the dominant voice of Christianity in the US. I really hope and pray that she is wrong. I pray that a progressive Christian movement can succeed using some other forces to motivate their followers:

  1. Hope
  2. Forgiveness and Repentance
  3. Love
  4. Charity
  5. Servanthood

But, I’m just a wild-eyed idealist.

May 14, 2005

This Site Best Viewed with Firefox

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 7:30 pm

Get Firefox!Over the past few months, I’ve had comments (well, complaints, really) that the comment box on this blog spilled over into the sidebar, so the commenter can’t see what they’re typing. I’ve never been able to re-create the problem myself, and I figured that upgrading to WordPress 1.5 would have taken care of it. Not so. After another complaint, I decided to try viewing this site with Internet Explorer, and was surprised to find that IE is the cause ot the comment box problem.

I took a look at the html and the css style sheet, and it all looks correct, but then my knowledge of both is pretty superficial. So, I don’t know how to correct this for you IE users. My solution, of course, is to recommend that you move to Firefox or any of the other open source non-Microsoft browsers.

Has anyone else run across this? Is this due to Microsoft’s ongoing attempts to add non-standard functionality into IE to maintain their market dominance? Any ideas on how to fix it? Any help would be appreciated. In the meantime, apologies to any IE users.

May 12, 2005

Why Strict Churches Are Strong

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:42 pm

A pleasant surprise in Slate today — an article titled The Power of the Mustard Seed, which provides a sophisticated and nuanced look at religion. Judith Shulevitz asks why devout believers voluntarily submit to a rigid, legalistic moral law in those traditions that require it. To answer this question, she refers to economist Laurence Iannacone’s 1994 essay, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong”.

Iannacone starts by asking why people join strict churches, given that doing so exacts such a high price. Eccentric customs invite ridicule and persecution; membership in a marginal church may limit chances for social and economic advancement; rules of observance bar access to apparently innocent pleasures; the entire undertaking squanders time that could have been spent amusing or improving oneself.

According to Iannacone, the devout person pays the high social price because it buys a better religious product. The rules discourage free riders, the people who undermine group efforts by taking more than they give back. The strict church is one in which members with weak commitments have been weeded out

What does the pious person get in return for all of his or her time and effort? A church full of passionate members; a community of people deeply involved in one another’s lives and more willing than most to come to one another’s aid; a peer group of knowledgeable souls who speak the same language (or languages), are moved by the same texts, and cherish the same dreams. Religion is a “‘commodity’ that people produce collectively,” says Iannacone. “My religious satisfaction thus depends both on my ‘inputs’ and those of others.” If a rich and textured spiritual experience is what you seek, then a storefront Holy Roller church or an Orthodox shtiebl is a better fit than a suburban church made up of distracted, ambitious people who can barely manage to find a morning free for Sunday services, let alone several evenings a week for text study and volunteer work. [emphasis mine]

This observation hits very close to home for me. I belong to a suburban church, and I am afraid that I am one of those “distracted, ambitious people” with an inconsistent attendance record on Sundays. What’s more, my church is going through the Natural Church Development process which identifies a church’s “minimum factor“. While my church is strong in some areas and average in others, our minimum factor has turned out to be “passionate spirituality”. Ouch.

Shulevitz ends her piece by arguing that a strict piety need not be conservative.

[W]orshippers want enthusiastic commitment from fellow worshippers, not that those who want commitment list to the left or the right…[I]f the desire for thick connections and strong community accounts for even a small part of the allure of strict piety, Iannacone’s solutions to the free-rider problem might provide helpful hints, even for less stringent churches and synagogues. Methodist ministers could allow themselves to demand more prayer and volunteer work from their congregants. Rabbis in Judaism’s Conservative movement (which is less strict than Jewish Orthodoxy) could push harder for their congregations to keep kosher, study Talmud, and visit the sick. There’s no reason that higher levels of religious involvement couldn’t be tied to liberal, rather than conservative, theologies, to doctrines of skepticism and doubt rather than those of certitude, if that’s what pastors and rabbis believed in and wanted to preach.

I truly hope she is right about that. My church is searching for ways to be more spiritually passionate, and perhaps demanding more of our members (me included) is one of them. The difficulty to this approach is one of exclusivity. Conservative churches have no qualms telling someone that they are not welcome unless they meet their religious requirements. Moderate-to-liberal churches are unable on principle to exclude anyone from worship and the sacraments. How could we make more demands on the members of our church without some consequence, i.e. exclusion, for those that don’t or can’t meet the demands? Put in theological terms, if grace is free, why should anyone bother to do good works?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed this question in The Cost of Discipleship.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all it is costly because it costs God the life of his Son…and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God. [emphasis in the original]

Bonhoeffer’s call for a grace that is free but never cheap, that is costly but withheld from no one, is a way to a strict piety that is neither liberal nor conservative. Perhaps my church, and others like it, can find a way to make this kind of grace more real. That would be a strict piety I could be passionate about.

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